The men who sailed into Chesapeake Bay (largest inlet in the Atlantic coastal plain of what would become the United States of America) to begin the English colonisation of Virginia were, for the most part, mediocrities of outstanding otioseness. Among them were vagabonds, vagrants, pirates, brutes, cowards, informers, whingers, amputees, fools and faineants. It seems astonishing, reading this fine, highly readable and thoroughly charming account, that the task, begun in 1606, was completed at all. Many were conned and killed by resident Indian tribes. Some of their leaders, such as Captain John Ratcliffe, had particularly gruesome deaths: "A tree was kindled at the foot of a tree. Ratcliffe was stripped of his clothes, and tied to the tree. Several [Indian] women then approached the naked captain. They began to flay his skin with the sharp edges of mussel shells, gently teasing it away from the flesh. They then sliced through the muscle and sinews to remove the limbs and organs from his body, which were 'before his face thrown into the fire; and so for want of circumspection [he] miserably perished'."
Woolley has drawn brilliantly on neglected sources from across the world to reveal what this reckless endeavour managed to achieve in the land of Pocahontas, the beautiful daughter of the native American chief Powhatan who, incidentally, was the chap who ordered Ratcliffe's execution. Powhatan, it seems, was every bit as machiavellian as was Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, whose ambivalence towards the Virginia venture was, to a great extent, responsible for its woes. In the two expeditions which reached the proposed settlement of Jamestown, on the James River, in 1607 and 1609, only one man stands out for his indomitable courage and calculation. John Smith, the son of a Lincolnshire farmer, was a prolific writer and cartographer who, despite the resentment of his aristocratic leaders, eventually became "president" of the fledgling settlement.
Smith was determined to focus on practical means of survival in the wildernesses along both sides of Chesapeake Bay. He organised stockades, house building, trade with the Indians for sorely needed food. All the while, his so-called superiors languished while awaiting stores from England and naively ignoring Smith's cautions regarding the deceitfulness of the native people. His approach was vindicated not least when he himself was ambushed by the Powhatan Indians. He was about to be killed when Pocahontas, then 13, threw herself between the victim and his would-be executioners. She then pleaded successfully for his release.
Smith later said that during his brief "presidency" he had "little …